Death of a Past Life

Book review by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

Reincke, Robert N. Death of a Past Life. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2006.

When you are given this book to read, you may tell yourself, "Oh, well, here's yet another German-Russian pre- and postwar family adventure story!" Far from it. After reading both the draft and the published version of this real-life historical novel, I am persuaded that this is a gripping book, and even though I have also read other stories of this kind, there are important unique aspects of this book that captured and intrigued me:

1. Unlike the majority of historical books about German-Russian families which, rather parallel to the history of my own immediate family, deal with "normal," peasant-descendant Germans in and/or from Russia and with the horrendous events many such families experienced, this book tells of a family that was part of a group one almost never hears about: Germans in Russia who descended from and were prosperous and successful members of the highly placed and privileged class that had earlier been lured to St. Petersburg and to the Tsar's court and community.

2. The main protagonists of this family story intensely experienced the extremely inhumane and debilitating siege of Leningrad, but were able to escape it and eventually survive while much of their extended family did not.

3. A strongly intriguing aspect of this book and a true accomplishment is the way the author has taken the stories he heard mostly from his impressive and long-lived grandmother and has fleshed them out with very believable details of day-to-day emotions, experiences, and uplifting as well as brutally dehumanizing experiences thus the historical novel. Not only are these details gripping, but Reincke, who must have studied and read at length about the pertinent history, is especially strong when he describes the deep, genuine and nearly incomprehensible emotions and endurance of his ancestor family. Here was a group of truly gifted German-Russians with great skills and accomplishments. The author describes brilliantly the family's actions and reactions necessary to make it through horrible circumstances and to survive terror of the worst kind; he depicts a clan's steep descent from high privilege to abject poverty, of living conditions ranging from opulence to sheer deprivation, and of the need for and ever unexpected to survival.

The remaining story is not quite so unique, for here it becomes fairly parallel to the experiences of my own family as well as, for example, stories you can read of Nelly Daes' family. As in similar stories, here we read of successive escapes and moves a small family was able to make between 1942 and 1945, as they hurriedly flitted from Leningrad to a country Volga place, to Yarolslavl, back to Leningrad, then to the Caucasus, to bombed-out wartime Berlin, to a German country village, to a secluded farm, to a Czech village, and "final redemption" to the devastated American Zone of Germany, eventually to emigrate to real freedom in the US. All the while, the family was subjected to the irrational wrath and horror of the Soviet system inflicted especially on Germans (and others), to the equally arbitrary willfulness and cruelty of the Nazis, but also to the gentle and almost naive good will of American rescuers and occupiers of Europe.

The author does a superb job in describing the intimidation and discrimination the family experienced simply due to being German during post-Revolution Russia, the horrible Stalinist era and wartime Russia; and then the equally intolerable suffering of being considered a Russian in similarly oppressive wartime Germany.

The only thing this particular family (and my very own, plus the descendants of American Germans whose ancestors had emigrated from Russia during the 19th Century) did not experience, due partly to luck and partly to pluck, is what so many of my relatives and the vast majority of Volga-Germans and Black-Sea Germans and many others had to go through: an additional term of intolerable life after their postwar deportation to work camps and further brutal oppression of everything German-Russian. Still, it is easy to see that what the family of this book were forced to endure, especially in Leningrad and beyond, was more than any human should go through ever!

Since this book is the true story of a family, albeit in the form of a historical novel, the photos the author has included - photos that miraculously made it through the war - provide true depth to the reader's experience.

The book was edited by historian Stephen Herzog, who brought to the task his expertise in German, Russian, and Eastern European history, as well as his sense for good writing, all the while maintaining Reincke's sometimes quirky, but always interesting style.

This historical novel, Death of a Past Life by Robert Reincke, is a captivating and enlightening book that provides not only glimpses and insights into the moving experiences of a family who endured the unendurable and survived under totalitarian regimes, but the book also provides a unique introduction into a segment of German-Russians not often heard from.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller